The New Yorker discusses the management structure of 18th and 19th century Pirates.

The surprising thing is that, even with this untraditional power structure, pirates were, in Leeson’s words, among “the most sophisticated and successful criminal organizations in history.”

Pirate organizations developed outside the scope of state law. They were non-state actors capable of criminal and military action and were very well organized.


Pirates were volunteers from a diverse background. They could not rely on family or tribal ties, nor could they rely on a state authority to enforce rules and contracts. Many pirates created “constitutions” that mixed democratic and military command structures.

Captain predation was a major concern. Captains and officers abused their authority on Navy Ships as dictators. On pirate ships, captains were not given absolute authority. If they abused the crew, a mutiny would overthrow him. There were other mechanisms to prevent the captain from abusing one faction of the crew and rewarding a loyal faction.

Pirates created a balance of power. They had democratically elected officers and disputes were settled by a jury of crewmen.

First, pirates adopted a system of divided and limited power. Captains had total authority during battle, when debate and disagreement were likely to be both inefficient and dangerous. Outside of battle, the quartermaster, not the captain, was in charge—responsible for food rations, discipline, and the allocation of plunder. On most ships, the distribution of booty was set down in writing, and it was relatively equal; pirate captains often received only twice as many shares as crewmen.

Pirates often changed ships and served under a number of captains. Over time they modified their constitutions to eliminate what didn’t work in favor of what did. This led to something like standardization as memes spread.

Piracy was a demanding criminal activity. It required a high skill level and managed high risks. Poorly run pirate crews would fail in short order. Darwinist pressure forced them to discover organizational solutions.

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